Monthly Archives: February 2017

Tender Resignation

Dear Michael,

I am writing to tell you I’ve decided to cease being your copywriter. Our relationship has spanned four years and three continents, but with this last batch of writing I must say enough is enough. I truly regret this step, but feel it necessary in light of your recent personal changes. Please do not take this resignation as an end to our friendship or a cessation of my warm feelings for you. I very much do care for your well being still. It is this concern that leads me to end our professional relationship.

I feel I must explain the change in my disposition, because it must seem very abrupt and frivolous from your end. Certainly, it is abrupt. Abrupt as the recent change in your writings, Michael. I was never given very much work in the way of simple errors. You have minded your grammar like a Latin scholar, and for that I was always grateful. But the sudden downturn in your language is quite frightening, Michael. It feels as though your mind has begun fraying at the seams. You must tell me, in all confidence as your friend, whether this is related to some foreign substance you’re abusing. When you go from writing phrases like this:

Purple grow the lilacs on the sweet down-wind of the river banks.

To

Yattering madly like a spindle(?) piercing the chattering brook[…] ripped, ripped apart from time and surface and all knowledge accrued by man…

You understand my concern, don’t you? It’s barely a sentence, much less a coherent thought. You did not detail your adventures in full, but I fear you may have run afoul of some less-than-savory types in your travels.

My concern lies also with your personal safety. I know it sounds ridiculous coming from a homebody such as myself, but trawling the Arabian desert for a nameless city that may never have existed seems too much risk for too little gain. You tell me of Iram of the pillars and lost Sarnath, but what I see is baseless superstition. Star charts and scraps of myth are no replacement for sturdy boots and a good company of men. I have no wish to scold you like a mother, but you do give me reason for grief. I believe your risk also bleeds over to me. You were the one who had me fetch that blasted Din of Cicadas or whatever they call it from the academic library. You had me translate passages and send them out to you. You were the one who got me removed from the dean’s list at the school library after decades of loyal service. You had to have known, Michael, the dreadful reputation of that book even if I did not.

And on the subject of dreadful, I must say my stomach can no longer take any of your bloody descriptions. The sacrifice and befoulment of a dog, the fate of your camel, the pilloried thief, all these are just too much. Your readers are interested in the grit and dust of the trail, do you think they need to hear how your guide’s feet split open with black cankers after walking unshod on the “parched ground”? Do you think men at their gentlemen’s clubs want to hear the bloodcurdling history of reptilian ur-men over their morning coffee? Why such focus on the ailment of your friend Mahmoud, who swole and split like a puff-ball in punishment for showing you a certain trail? They are truly terrible events, and my heart bleeds for you, but they are entirely inappropriate for your usual format and far more suited to the pulps.

And on that note, I must ask whether there is any truth to what you write. You tell me:

The blasted thing curled above Price’s men, yawning through so many wretched mouths like an abomination dredged up from the deepest depths of the sea. The men slept on unaware as the monster unfurled in the night wind, sending so many tendrils to tap and sup from their unconscious bodies until the men were drained into sacklike ruins. Oh but the true terror comes not from that night, but the next morning when Price returned to see his men and one by one the husks called out to him by name

Michael, I must ask this as your friend and editor—how do you know this if you were not there? You claim Price destroyed by the wraiths of his own men, how did you learn of this scene, then? And how can you so clearly envision the activity of the nameless city-dwellers, those reptilian beasts of such unkind intellect, how can you see them crawling about the city when they have been dead for eons? I worry for your health, my friend. Either you have become a prodigious liar in your travels or the heat has addled your brain. I do not believe a facetless ruby can show you such visions, that mystic humbug is something a fakir would sell for the price of a watch.

I really request that you entertain my concerns, Michael, even if only for a moment. Your mental state worries me, when you produce such scenes as this:

Corpse-down, gathered through many wretched midnight excursions, padded the altar made of brass feathers and noxious amber ornaments. The priest passed the lamp flame over his hand once, twice, and it was then I realized that his flesh was not bandaged but that his very flesh was swaddled. Nimbly as a factory girl, he reached out and plucked Burrows’ eyes from their sockets, replacing them with a shiny serpentine stone each.

And this:

The moonlight took on an infections quality. I could feel my skin roil beneath it, as if the very touch of the light itself were changing me. The hole in the sky seemed to laugh at my eye’s feeble attempts to make sense of the where and how of it. Now that the priest had shed his robes I could see his true form was that of the hideous things that crawled endlessly from low doorways and stairs at impossible angles. From my bound position I could only watch as Price’s life fluid formed a river that flowed upwards from the basin, up into the Stygian depths of that hole which was no longer a hole but a kind of un-moon…

I worry as your friend and as a fellow professional. Such graphic scenes flow from only the most perverse of imagination. You, from a good family and solid education, should not be penning these scenes. I do not need to hear about the flensing of your left foot, the removal of your ears, nor the grueling attempt at tattooing your back. I do not appreciate being told you are at death’s door, saying you leave these pages as your last will and testament as you are too weak to hike back to the nearest outpost. It is a cruel fiction to spin, Michael, as you must have survived long enough to post these pages to me. A note is all I ask, an inclusion in your thoughts however dark they may be, telling me you are well.

I must close with a complaint that seems minor in the face of other worries, and it is this: the figure you had shipped to me is disturbing. I set it on the piano and now the cat refuses to go near it. I have looked the figure up in Makepiece’s Guide to Egyptology, and no such creature exists in their pantheon. The green stone it is fashioned from must be some lead derivative, for being too near it gives me dreadful headaches.

Please return, Michael, to civilization and me. Cease these fancies and collect your artifact. I will no longer entertain your follies, but I will provide a bed and a hot cup of tea should you ever be in my city.

Yrs,

Terrence Q. Chase

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A Series of Museum Samples, Labeled Accordingly

Box #: 2376

Contains: Homo interstella

Description:  Species adapted to life in the vacuum of space.

Distinguishing features: Relatively fragile skeleton. Expanded ribcage for increased lung capacity. Skull capacity of 1600cc. Abdominal implants to aid in the voiding of waste.

Added notes: Only intact specimen, the rest lost after orbit decay.

 

Box #: 8446

Contains: Homo proelius

Description: Species specifically engineered to serve as soldiers of war. Possessing an unusually dense skeleton, fast-twitch muscles, and a metabolism 4.8X higher that of Homo erectus.

Distinguishing features: Abnormally enlarged canines. Rapid maturation rate. Sagittal crest, indicating jaw strength equal to a common Pan troglodytes. Vestigial genitalia.

Added notes: Average lifespan of 6-8 years.

 

Box #: 5610000

Contains: Homo radiensis

Description: The skeleton of a species that chose to inhabit the surface contaminated with nuclear fallout.

Distinguishing features: Degraded skeletal structure due to the metabolism of radioactive agents. Jawbone has dissolved from  body processing Strontium-90 as calcium. Skin covered with carcinomas and sunless “Chernobyl” tan.

Added notes: Specimen emits 2.6 Sv of radiation at all times, box must be lead-lined.

 

Box#: 100078684

Contains: Homo cardifferi

Description: Specimen taken from a failed colony at Cardiff.

Distinguishing features: Due to a genetic bottleneck, specimen is possessed of several recessive genetic traits as well as an enlarged heart and other physical ailments. Skeletal structure indicates the specimen was unable to walk or sit upright due to crippling arthritis.

Added notes: Specimen was four years of age.

 

Box #: 42X1034

Contains: Homo bovinus

Description: Species specifically designed to serve as supplemental food source.

Distinguishing features: Shortened limb growth. Abundance of fatty glands and outsize sexual organs. Implanted rumen to aid in the digestion of a vegetation-heavy diet. C-curve of the spine, indicating the specimen was quadrupedal.

Added notes: Brain shows signs of heavy protein starvation, limiting neural activity.

 

Box #: 86X1090

Contains: Homo kelvinus

Description: an attempt by scientist Homer Kelvin to repopulate the earth through genetic manipulation.

Distinguishing features: none.

Added notes: All specimens genetically identical to Dr. Kelvin.

 

Box #: [number is scratched out]

Contains: Homo aeturnus

Description: The last, the ultimate human being. Man, so warped by his own hand, sought to engineer the architect of the end. A specimen that would live a span of indeterminate longevity, created for the sole task of categorizing his fallen brethren.

Distinguishing features: Lack of genital structure. Cells infinitely capable of producing telomerase, escaping the Hayflick limit. A skull capacity of 2800cc.

Added notes: The box is empty.

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Huntington’s Masked Petrel

Huntington’s Masked Petrel is only found on one island in the Pacific. They’re pretty big, as far as flighted seabirds go. Only the Wandering Albatross can match it in mass. Like the name indicates, they’ve got facial markings that make it look like they have black masks. It sets off their deep crimson eyes. What really makes them stand out, though, is the presence of rudimentary dental structures. Yes, they have teeth. Crude teeth. Willard Huntington called them the missing link between dinosaurs and modern-day birds.

And almost nobody believes they exist.

Willard Huntington tried to shop around various scientific societies, pleading his case with what little evidence he could get off the island. You see, the Petrels are very into recycling. The second a bird falls down, the others are all over it. They’ll eat feathers, eggshells, they’ll even crack bones to get at the marrow. Huntington lost his pinky finger just to get the fragments of an egg.

The Audubon society took one look at it and dismissed it as belonging to an already existing species of Petrel. Huntington fought his whole life to get his namesake recognized, taking a yearly expedition to the island. When he kicked the bucket, you’d be forgiven for assuming that was the end of it.

Not for our great-uncle Norman.

Norman was only a teenager when he went on the first expedition with Huntington. He was hooked. By the time Huntington kicked it, Norman was carrying the torch. Even after the few disciples that Huntington gathered got older and died off, Norman was still going strong.

The island the Petrels live on is so small it doesn’t have a name. Norm took to calling it “Huntington island” in memory of the late professor.

Every year, Norman would travel out there. Every year he would take what little evidence he could gather and set up a little show in our living room, from super 8 to camcorder and eventually to DV. He would talk about the birds like they were pets, naming them things like “Scamp” and “Plucky.” We learned a lot from those lectures, and not just what Norman intended.

The Masked Petrel is a mean goddamn bird. The shape of the markings on their feathers makes it look like they’re constantly angry, which doesn’t seem far off. Any wayward bird that winds up on their island, they destroy. They will dive for fish and leave it to flop around on bare rock for a long time before pulverizing it with their beaks.

We saw a clip of Norm attempting to play with a Petrel. The bird gives him the most evil look as he teases it with a bit of oilcloth. The wind clouds up the mic as Norm says something like “got your hankie” and suddenly the bird strikes, rolling its neck like a snake. The camera shakes and dips for a second as Norm laughs and says “you naughty baby.” In the last few seconds of the clip, you can see his hand oozing blood.

Masked Petrels aren’t just mean. They’re damn smart. Crows are smart enough to make tools. Masked Petrels are smart enough to build houses.

I’m not exaggerating that.

The stone igloos started appearing after an expedition where their tent blew away, leaving Norm and the last surviving disciple at the time to build a wind break from the rocks that made up the beach. After that visit, they began finding crude stone structures that graduated from simple stone circles to domed huts, complete with keystone. Norm took a photo of his fellow Huntington disciple removing a stone so that the roof fell in, laughing and displaying the stone to the camera.

That man disappeared shortly afterwards, leaving behind his shredded anorak.

Crows are smart enough to hold a grudge. Masked Petrels are smart enough to hold a vendetta.

You may ask: with all this photographic evidence, why isn’t the Masked Petrel a recognized species now?

Well, because Norman had lost faith in the scientific community after the death of his mentor. I also believe he wanted to keep the bird, to have something entirely his own. He spoke to them like they were his own children.

Dangerous, irritable children.

Masked Petrels hate other birds. Norm filmed a wayward Puffin struggling in from the sea, only to get dashed to the ground by Masked Petrels. Rather than kill it, however, the Petrels seemed to take sport in throwing it around, waiting until it rose only to brutalize it again. The death took twenty minutes. It was hard not to hear the Petrel’s cries as mocking laughter after that.

The Petrels got smarter with every visit. The last trip Norman made with another person, something got into the ship’s cabin and tampered with the radio, shortening the signal so that if they had called for help, especially in such a remote corner of the ocean, no one would have heard them. The radio had been screwed back into place after the sabotage, the only reason they knew it had been tampered with was sheer coincidence. Norm’s traveling companion wanted to get a diet coke from the fridge and noticed a band sticker he’d placed on the radio casing was split at the seam.

After that, Norman couldn’t get anyone to accompany him to the island. So he went alone.

The colony on that island grew with every subsequent visit. Huntington’s first paper reports that “a handful…of these miracle creatures cling to life in a desolate waste.” On Norm’s last visit, he filmed an entire circuit of the island before landing. The Petrel’s nesting ground had grown to encompass half the land.

We begged him not to go on that last trip. It was too dangerous, and he was getting on in years. Shouldn’t he think about securing Huntington’s legacy instead?

Norm brushed it off. He had something new, something he wouldn’t reveal to us, that he wanted to document. He’d see us next August!

…no he wouldn’t.

We had always known how his death would come. On the teeth of cruel birds, or in travel to their home. Our grief period was condensed, because we had been mourning him long before his death. The footage of the birds was locked in a secure location, which Norman had written directions to in his own cipher. So we buried his memory in our hearts and thought our business with those strange birds was done.

Until recently.

I got a disc in the mail from a cousin of mine, belongs to a yachting club. You couldn’t pay me to set foot on a boat, so he gives me all sorts of nautical updates.

The label on the tape bears a number, 34.515611, -145.371083, and my cousin’s handwriting: “sound familiar?”

I stared for the longest time until it clicked: this was the latitude and longitude of my great-uncle’s precious island.

The disc contained one video clip, recorded by a French sailing yacht. There are repeated mutterings of what I can translate without help, some variant on “what is that?” The camera man shakily positions himself, auto zoom accidentally fixing on portions of the boat before he lifts his hand up and steadies his focus on the horizon.

There is a large pillar of smoke, like that of a burning boat. It isn’t until the cameraman zooms as far as possible, until the video distorted with digital fuzz, that we can see that the pillar isn’t smoke.

It’s Masked Petrels.

In the last few seconds of video, before the camera dips and cuts off, the massive flock seems to form a face with their bodies, a face which I have crept frame-by-frame countless times in order to properly identify it as my lost great-uncle Norman.

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Folding

It was in the internment camp that Gideon’s mother would fold paper, sending her bone-white fingers to travel along the flat yellow construction paper (no thick, quality washi in those days) transforming it into the most recognizable of shapes: the tsuru. The crane that would alight on a house to bring it good luck.

Gideon thought of her, sitting in the coffee shop. There was a domestic magazine open in front of him, an American woman in red lipstick and white sweater, the modern domestic goddess. Gideon had torn a page out of the spread and worked it into a square.

The other patrons paid him no more mind than a dragonfly skipping over the surface of a pond. That’s how he knew the young man who pushed open the door was there for him. The young man glanced at Gideon and then away, then back at Gideon. Gideon had no doubt he was there from the university. He pretended to busy himself with his paper, sipping his hot caffé Americano.

The young man did not bother with niceties. He walked straight over to sit on the lounge opposite Gideon’s, a bright, intent look on his face.

“Dr. Morimoto?” He held a hand out. “Kevin Fielding. You know why I’m here.”

Gideon ignored his hand. The woman’s face mutated into a series of planes under his fingers, distorting her irrevocably. Gideon had but one picture of his mother during the war years, her long hair butchered into a bob, ruffled housedress disguising the natural curve of her body. His mother, folding herself smaller and smaller so as not to be tossed away like waste paper.

Kevin frowned slightly and withdrew his hand. “Doctor, I hope you know how obstinate you’re being. You’re not the only one on this project you know.”

Gideon flicked out a finger, expertly smoothing creases. The slick magazine paper was impregnated with clay, making the task of folding more difficult. This paper held its first folds crisply, but too many folds and it would weaken and round out faster than regular paper.

Kevin was watching his hands. “Sir? You realize we’re running up against a deadline. They will cut funding to the department if the experiment doesn’t carry through. That’s very selfish, I think.”

A square studded with diamonds lay on the table between them now. Gideon was a frequent guest on experimental origami forums. This form was a variation on Mills’ 75th configuration. It could be unfolded many ways, accordion-style, and folded back without losing integrity. The first time he’d done it, it had taken an hour to finish the form. Now he could finish it in minutes. Now it was merely a stepping-stone to greater things.

Gideon took the origami and, with a flick of his wrist, turned it inside out.

“The admin is very upset. You may have originated the manifold wormhole theory, but it no longer belongs to you as a concept.” Kevin wet his lips and leaned closer. “I struck a deal with them. You can tell me the roughs of it, I won’t ask more than that. But—” Kevin looked around. “We need to give them something.”

Well, well, well. From ‘I’ to ‘we’. Gideon was moving up in the world.

Gideon looked up from his busy fingers. “Origami was not always called origami.”

Kevin’s brow furrowed. Perhaps they had told him of Gideon’s supposed eccentricities. “Sir?”

“It was once referred to as Orikata. Kata is a form, a style, like fighting. A discipline. A way of altering the mind in favor of the art.”

Kevin’s eyes were blank behind his glasses.

“Paper has limits. I can fold this—” Gideon brandished the magazine page, “—only so many times. Its thickness might be considered strength in any other area. In orikata, flexibility is the strength.”

Kevin grasped at that straw. “Yes, and we need flexibility—”

“The paper must fold, and your mind must fold with it,” Gideon continued, tucking tabs into their pockets. He produced a shape not unlike a klein bottle. “That is key. If one cannot think multidimensionally, one will fail.”

Kevin ground his teeth. He wore round, wire-rimmed glasses, much like the officer that had overseen the quadrant of the internment camp Gideon had lived in. Gideon’s father had joined the army long before Pearl Harbor, he was in the South Pacific while his wife and child folded paper behind barbed wire. Gideon’s parents had both been Nisei, barely speaking enough Japanese to satisfy their parents. Gideon’s father, Clark Gable haircut distorting his hairline, flamed out over the pacific. Gideon’s mother had taken his head in her hands that day, smoothing his hair.

“Your family name is Morimoto,” she had whispered in a voice shriveled by grief, “‘one who lives near the forest.’ Our people made paper once. Paper is the stepping stone to many things. Remember that.”

Kevin shook his head. “You realize you are holding progress back. This could be a great leap forward in the field of physics.”

Gideon inverted a mountain fold. “Did you know I was in an internment camp as a child? Manzanar. Thousands of Americans rounded up because of a circumstance of birth.”

Kevin frowned. “…I don’t see how that’s our fault.”

Gideon held up a finger. “I have thought along the folds of the manifold wormhole project, and I have come to the conclusion that it would risk too many lives. A misfold in the paper.”

The clear crystal of Kevin’s glasses caught the light of the reading lamp just above Gideon’s couch. “As a researcher, we cannot concern ourselves with petty risks like that. The potential loss from not moving forward with this experiment is greater, in my eyes.”

Gideon clicked his tongue sadly. “Then you’ve listened to nothing I’ve said.”

He placed his folded paper form on the table. It was now completely unrecognizable from its origins. The model’s lips scattered across the page like radar dots. The paper formed a space that seemed convex and concave at once.

“Do you know the meaning of my name?” Gideon asked, “it is Gideon. Meaning one who hews or clears. I was meant to be the cutting-off point for my family. The ender of things. I feel that I must live up to that name, one way or the other.”

Kevin wet his lips again. Cold avarice shone in his eyes. “Does this mean you’ve agreed to come back?”

Gideon gestured to the table. Kevin followed the gesture, not understanding. Gideon indicated the origami form sitting in the middle of the beat-up wood ringed with round burn scars.

Frowning, Kevin reached out to touch it.

His hand did not stop at the surface of the table.

Kevin’s eyes went wide as he fell within, making not so much as a gasp as he fell into a space that did not not seem big enough to hold anything.

No one in the busy cafe looked twice.

Gideon finished his Americano. Then he took the paper form and worked it, tenderly soothing it out of its severe folds until it came to rest on the table as a tsuru, a tidy little crane recognizable to any schoolchild across the world. Gideon left it there.

His family home was on Santa Maria avenue, a simple double-story that cooled well in the sticky California climate. Gideon called “tadaima” at the entrance and left his shoes there.

Gideon’s father was sat before the television on his zabuton, his tall frame folded by time and osteoporosis. Gideon brushed a kiss to his white, sparse temple.

“How goes it, pop?”

Gideon’s father pointed a shaking hand at the screen. “Can you believe this? They want to develop the land beside the gasworks. Haven’t I always said that’s a floodplain? They never listen to residents. We’ve lived here longer than those idiots, haven’t we?”

Gideon looked at his father, a long, loving stare. “Always. And never.”

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